The history of the settlement in Augustów dates back to the early Middle Ages, when the region was inhabited by the Yotvingian tribes. From the 1280s to the 1420s, after their extermination, the territory remained a subject of dispute between the Order of Teutonic Knights, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Mazovian dukes. In 1422, under the Treaty of Melno, the Augustów land was annexed to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The stabilization of the political situation led to the increased number of settlers and economic growth in this area in the 16th century.

According to the preserved sources, in 1496 there was a customs house in the place of the town, which charged a fare for crossing the river[1.1]]. In 1546, King Zygmunt August made a decision to establish a settlement on the Netta River, which was to be named after him “Zygmuntowo”. The settlement, however, was granted a charter only in 1550. In May 1557, it obtained municipal rights under the Magdeburg Law and was named Augustów. Roads and streets, nearly 600 building parcels as well as the main square and another, smaller square called “wołowy”, were all marked out at that time. The King granted the town the right to hold two annual fairs and two weekly markets as well as the privilege of free fishing. In 1564 he issued an additional privilege under which the citizens could brew beers and mead as well as distil vodka. The rich royal town, situated at a trade route leading from Lithuania and Byelorussia to Prussia, Greater Poland, Cracow and Warsaw, was inhabited largely by Polish, Lithuanian and Byelorussian craftsmen and developed rapidly as far as economy and demography were concerned. Although the preserved sources indicate that Jews settled down in Augustów only in the 1660s, it is supposed that a small group of Jewish settlers came to live in the town as early as in 1577 or even 1564[1.2].

The rapid development of the centre came to a halt when the Tatars burned it down in 1656. During the Northern Wars in 1704 – 1721, the town was devastated and plundered several times by the Swedish, Brandenburg, Saxon and Russian armies. The further decline of the town in the second half of the 17th century was also caused by an epidemic, which decimated the local population in 1710.  It was only in the second half of the 18th century that Augustów became the biggest town of the present-day Suwałki Region. Augustów and regained its former economic significance. Many Jewish merchants started settling down in Augustów at that time.

After the third partition of Poland in 1795, Augustów was under the control of Prussia and became part of New East Prussia.

According to the terms of the Treaty of Tilsit in 1807, the Augustów land was incorporated into the Duchy of Warsaw. After the Congress of Vienna in 1815, in turn, Augustów was annexed to the Kingdom of Poland and became the capital of the newly created August County. In 1837, it gained the status of the capital of the Augustów Government. The town developed rapidly from 1825, when the construction of the Augustów Canal and Warsaw – Petersburg road started. However, as early as 1831, during the November Uprising, Augustów was burned and lost its position as the capital of the province.

In the mid-19th century, Augustów was a multi-ethnic and multi-religious centre populated mostly by Poles, Russians and Jews. Industry and trade flourished in the region. A railway line was established in Augustów in 1899.

In 1915, the Russian and Prussian armies fought against each other in the surrounding area.  The town together with the Augustów Primeval Forest, which remained under the control of Germany, were exploited economically by the occupants. A year after the German troops withdrew from the town, from July to September 1920, Augustów was occupied by the Bolsheviks.

In the interwar period, the town prospered thanks to the development of the wood industry in the region and the growing importance of Augustów as a famous holiday and health resort.

After the outbreak of World War II, in September 1939, the town was seized by the Soviet army. In June 1941, the region was invaded by the Germans. Soon thereafter, about 800 – 900 Jewish men were killed in a mass execution. In 1941, a ghetto was established in Augustów. Its inhabitants died in the extermination camps in Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau in December 1942 and January 1943. Seventy per cent of the Augustów territory situated near the front line was destroyed in the period between October 1944 and January 1945. In the post-war years, Augustów revived as a tourist and industrial centre.

  • [1.1] [31.08.2009
  • [1.2] Augustow [in:] The Encyclopedia of Jewish Life Before and During the Holocaust, ed. S. Spector, G. Wigoder, vol. I, New York 2001, pp. 63-64.